Context

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Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American literary classic. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962, with Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch. The novel also won the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1961 and was Best Sellers magazine “Paperback of the Year” in 1961.

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Although Harper Lee has not published a major work since To Kill a Mockingbird, the book retains its place in American literature for its telling of a regional story with a universal message. Also, although it is not a main issue, the novel features a feminist struggle. Even though the main focus of the novel remains Scout’s growing recognition of the prejudices of her surroundings, Scout struggles for an understanding of womanhood. Through the strong, lyrical voice of this independent tomboy, the reader sees a young girl unsure of her place in Southern femininity. Scout struggles with how to fit into the world of “ladies,” as exemplified by her Aunt Alexandria, and how to retain the independence that she has had as a child. Men still hold the main arena, and their world seems much more interesting to Scout than the world of caretaking that her aunt enjoys. Only Miss Maudie, Scout’s outspoken neighbor, offers a good model for Scout. Maudis is independent and speaks her mind, yet she enjoys her baking and tending her garden.

Lee has been linked to other Southern writers who emerged in American literature after World War II, such as Truman Capote (who was the model for Dill in the novel), Carson McCullers, William Styron, and Eudora Welty. Along with these writers, Lee celebrates the Southern tradition of looking back on the past as did her predecessor William Faulkner. The new Southern writers, however, wrote about a “new South,” a region that looked not only to its past but also to its future. Critics praised Lee for her portrayal of the new Southern liberal in the character of Atticus Finch. They also praise her technical use of point of view and her strong evocation of place as the strengths of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Impact

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Although frequently referred to as a regional novel, To Kill a Mockingbird quickly proved to have universal appeal. A best-seller, it received mixed critical reviews but was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and soon became one of the most widely read contemporary novels in U.S. high schools. Objections to its mild profanity, inclusion of racial epithets, depiction of hypocrisy in religion, and reference to rape led to occasional short-term censorship in public schools and libraries but ultimately only increased the popularity of the novel. Written during one of the most turbulent periods of race relations in the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird effectively reflects and indicts the social code of the South, which conflicted with established law in failing to provide justice for all, regardless of race. As race relations were being tested in both the courts and the streets, readers responded emotionally and intellectually to a literary work that advocated equal justice for all humanity.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on July 31, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011

Civil Rights in the 1950s

Despite the end of slavery almost a century before To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 (President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863), African Americans were still denied many of their basic rights. Although Lee sets her novel in the South of the 1930s, conditions were little improved by the early 1960s in America. The Civil Rights movement was just taking shape in the 1950s, and its principles were beginning to find a voice in American courtrooms and the law. The famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court trial of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas declared the long-held practice of segregation in public schools unconstitutional and quickly led to desegregation of other public institutions. However, there was still considerable resistance to these changes, and many states, especially those in the South, took years before they fully integrated their schools.

Other ways Blacks were demeaned by society included the segregation of public rest rooms and drinking fountains, as well as the practice of forcing Blacks to ride in the back of buses. This injustice was challenged by a mild-mannered department store seamstress named Rosa Parks. After she was arrested for failing to yield her seat to a white passenger, civil rights leaders began a successful boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 5, 1955. The principal leader of the boycott was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Along with other Black pastors, such as Charles K. Steele and Fred Shuttlesworth, King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in January, 1957, one of the leading organizations that helped end legal segregation by the mid-1960s. The same year that Lee won a contract for the unfinished manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which provided penalties for the violation of voting rights and created the Civil Rights Commission. African Americans would not see protection and enforcement of all of their rights, however, until well into the next decade, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Bill of 1968 were passed. These laws banned racial discrimination from public places, workplaces, polling places, and housing.

The justice system was similarly discriminatory in the 1950s, as Blacks were excluded from juries and could be arrested, tried, and even convicted with little cause. One notable case occurred in 1955, when two white men were charged with the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American youth who had allegedly harassed a white woman. Like the jury in Tom Robinson's trial, the jury for the Till case was all white and all male; the trial was also held in a segregated courtroom. Although the defense's case rested on the unlikely claims that the corpse could not be specifically identified as Till and that the defendants had been framed, the jury took only one hour to acquit the men of all charges. The men later admitted their crimes to a journalist in great detail, but were never punished for the murder.

The Great Depression and Race Relations

The events surrounding race relations in the 1950s and 1960s have a strong correspondence with those in To Kill a Mockingbird, which is set nearly thirty years earlier. The South, which was still steeped in its agricultural traditions, was hit hard by the Great Depression. Small farmers like Lee's Walter Cunningham Sr. often could not earn enough cash from their crops to cover their mortgages, let alone living expenses. Lee's novel captures the romanticism many white people associated with the Southern way of life, which many felt was being threatened by industrialization. Part of this tradition, however, protected such practices as sharecropping, in which tenant farmers would find themselves virtually enslaved to landowners who provided them with acreage, food, and farming supplies. The desperation sharecroppers felt was brilliantly depicted in Erskine Caldwell's 1932 novel, Tobacco Road. The racism of the South—many Blacks were sharecroppers—is also portrayed in Richard Wright's novel Uncle Tom's Children (1938).

There was little opportunity for African Americans to advance themselves in the South. Schools were segregated between whites and Blacks, who were not allowed to attend white high schools. Blacks were therefore effectively denied an education, since, in the early 1930s, there was not a single high school built for Black students in the South. The result was that nearly half of all Blacks in the South did not have an education past the fifth grade; in To Kill a Mockingbird, Calpurnia tells the children she is only one of four members of her church who can read. Ironically, the Depression helped to change that when northern school boards began integrating schools to save the costs of running separate facilities. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal also led to the creation of the National Youth Administration (founded in 1935) and its Division of Negro Affairs, which helped teach Black students to read and write. The Depression was particularly painful to Blacks, who, in the 1920s, were already grossly underemployed. With worsening economic times, however, they found that even the menial jobs they once had like picking cotton—had been taken by whites. The New Deal helped here, too, with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and other agencies that assisted poor Blacks in obtaining jobs and housing.

Yet the oppressive society in the South often prevented Blacks from taking advantage of this government assistance. Racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Shirts terrorized Blacks out of their jobs The vigilante practice of lynching was still common in the South in the early 1930s. Only North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Alabama had laws specifically outlawing lynching as an illegal activity. (Surprisingly, only two northern states had similar laws.) By 1935, however, public outrage had reached a point where lynchings were no longer generally tolerated, even by whites. In Lee's novel, for instance, the local sheriff tries to warn Atticus Finch of a possible lynch mob while a concerned citizen, B. B. Underwood, is prepared to turn them away from the jail with his shotgun.

Social Sensitivity

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To Kill a Mockingbird is about two deeply disturbing subjects: rape and racism. Lee addresses both subjects with grave sensitivity. The details regarding Mayella Ewell's alleged rape come to light during the trial scenes, with Atticus gently guiding the proceedings. Although these details are not explicitly described, there is the suggestion of incest—that Bob Ewell not only beat his daughter but raped her as well. Since the story is being filtered through Scout, all of this information is related subtly and succinctly.

The novel also reflects the reality of racism in segregated southern towns in the 1930s, some thirty years before the civil rights movement. Blacks are commonly referred to as "niggers" and are considered below the law. Many members of the white society feel justified in inflicting their own form of justice on Blacks, particularly on those, such as Robinson, whom they believe have violated racist sexual taboos. By confessing his sympathy for Mayella, Tom Robinson—a Black man who has the gall to feel sorry for a white woman—offends the ignorant bigots of the town. A mob of townspeople gather at the jail in hopes of pulling Robinson from his cell and lynching him.

In her measured, deliberate style, Lee exposes the ugliness of this racist society and holds Atticus up as an example of enlightenment and compassion. Still, her comparison of Tom Robinson to a mockingbird, a harmless bird described as existing "only to sing his heart out for us," may strike some readers as patronizing and somewhat racist, for it reinforces the notion of the Black man's role as servant, and does not allow for the intellectual equality of Blacks.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1930s: During the Great Depression unemployment rose as high as 25%; the New Deal program of government-sponsored relief leads to a deficit in the federal budget.
  • 1960: After a decade of record-high American production and exports, unemployment dips to less than 5 percent, while the federal government runs a small surplus.
  • Today: Unemployment runs between 5 and 6 percent, while the federal government works to reduce a multi-billion dollar deficit amidst an increasingly competitive global economy.
  • 1930s: Schools are racially segregated; emphasis in the classroom was on rote learning of the basics.
  • 1960: Although backed up by force at times, school integration laws were being enforced; the 1959 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik leads to math and science gaining increased importance.
  • Today: School populations are as racially diverse as their communities; classes include a focus on combining subjects and problem-solving skills.
  • 1930s: Only property owners who were white and male could serve on juries.
  • 1960:: Women and minorities could now serve on juries; while the Supreme Court ruled that eliminating jurors from duty on the basis of race is unconstitutional, many trials still exclude Blacks and Hispanics.
  • Today: All registered voters are eligible to serve on juries, although in many cases prosecution and defense teams aim to create a jury with a racial balance favorable to their side.
  • 1930s: A big trial serves as a entertainment event for the whole town and a child who has been to the movies is unusual.
  • 1960: Television was becoming the dominant form of popular entertainment, while families might see films together at drive-in movie theaters.
  • Today: Although television and film are still large presences, computers and computer games swiftly gain a share in the entertainment market. Trials still provide public entertainment and are featured on their own cable channel.

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